Coming out for Wales

In 2010 we might just see a sporting world where homosexuality is at least less of a taboo, and for this we must thank Alfie Thomas, writes Ben Lewis

It is rare that you read or see something in the news that cheers you up. The far left press’s eternal Panglossianism - occasionally tantamount to self-delusion - does not count in this respect. Overwhelmingly, it serves to maintain a pseudo-reality in which the bosses are evil incarnate (and they live in their final days), and we, the left (ie, this or that particular sectlet), are progressing inexorably towards socialism. Shades of Stalin’s five-year plans and Khrushchev’s ‘We will achieve communism by 1980’ maybe?

So it was that, being both a rugby fan and somebody who has consistently agitated for LGBT rights all of his adult life, there was a story that did cheer me up over the Christmas period - Gareth ‘Alfie’ Thomas admitting his homosexuality. Despite being a harrowing tale of a man coming to terms with himself and the world around him, it is one that fills me with great optimism and hope. He is the first openly gay professional rugby player and - as an ex-captain of Wales with over 100 caps, loads of points and even some appearances as captain for the British and Irish Lions - one of the most high-profile sportsman to come out.

The Wales on Sunday (think News of the World but with fairly decent rugby reporting) stated that his homosexuality is “one of the worst kept secrets in the game”. This is certainly true. It must have been about 10 years ago that I first got wind of rumours of Alfie’s sexuality. And it was on the pitch. A huge Cardiff supporter, I was in the stands with a cheap £1 ticket (them were the days!) for a home game against Ebbw Vale. I was quite shocked by some of the fans’ reaction: “You can’t play rugby - you’re a fucking queer”. It was Alfie who had the last laugh though, scoring no less than five tries (!) against a distraught Ebbw back line that could neither deal with his pace, twinkle-toes step nor his sheer physicality. Good on you, Alfie.

Rugby is a much maligned and misunderstood sport, often dismissed as the preserve of brutish, air-headed public school boys engaged in an 80-minute futile war of attrition. I often despair at such an ignorant conception of the game, comparing people who spout such nonsense to the way that the political establishment, academia and ‘Marxologists’ alike malign Marxism - purporting to disprove its fundamental tenets without even having bothered to read any of the stuff. One ‘authoritative’ work I read stated in its introduction that the problem with Marx was that he saw all property as theft! Are you taking the piss from the grave, Mr Proudhon? How does this stuff even get published?

Anyway, there is method in my invective. In many ways, Alfie does sum up the multi-faceted and complex beauty of the game of rugby, and why it is more than the standard ‘big blokes running into each other’. He combines 15 stone of brute strength with a sprinting ability not far behind some of the best 100-metre runners. Charging full tilt, he can turn on his feet quickly enough to find the smallest of gaps in the 50-stone wall of the opposition back row, he can put a ball carrier into the air and then proceed to rip the ball from his clutches, and yet he can pass and kick with a subtlety that many basketball players and footballers would be proud of. As somebody who has followed Cardiff Blues and the Welsh XV since he was able to mouth the word ‘rugby’, Alfie has always been a personal hero of mine. But he knew that to succeed and fully reach the awesome potential of his talents he had to live a lie.

Merely in order to survive most of us have to fib about some part of our lives to others and sometimes - perhaps more importantly - we do so to ourselves. ‘Being successful’ or - the term I loathe most - ‘bettering yourself’ at the very least means telling some white lie (or even a whole lot worse) … ‘Life choice’ - the watchword of liberals - almost invariably means eking out an existence in some unfulfilling job at the expense of pursuing manifold interests and developing our talents. We are trapped in the realm of necessity, where our private sphere of activity precludes our development into well-rounded human beings who are at once critics, shepherds, musicians and fishermen. As such it is hardly surprising that both the playing and watching of sport become mere forms of escapism, a means of ‘getting away from life’, rather than actually feeding into this social development.

Particularly in rugby with its ‘macho’ image, this means that bigotry and intolerance are easily replicated at all levels of the game. In this instance, it is a narrow, patriarchal understanding of gender and sexuality that has been exposed. For some, after all, it is anathema that a man who is sexually attracted to other men could be a strong, physically fit and successful rugby player, just as a ‘real man’ (ie, a heterosexual supping Strongbow whilst perusing page 3) could never be, say, a successful dancer or fashion designer. As somebody who has played rugby from the age of 4, the Alfie case pertinently brings home how - for all the real gains made by gay, lesbian and transgendered people - there is still a long way to go in a struggle that is intricately bound up with far more wide-ranging social change than formal equality and the hijacking of LGBT rights via the ‘pink pound’ and so on.

Had Alfie planned all of this in order to bring these questions out? Or are more sinister forces of blackmail (ie, The Daily Mail) at work? Back in the heady days of him captaining Wales to grand slam success, for example, he had to leave the Welsh camp in order to persuade a newspaper not to scandlise about him.

The direct correlation between his rugby success and the media interest in his private life underlines the tragedy of all this. The media will sink to almost any depths in order to make money - often ringing up celebrities and sports stars to inform them that they have certain pictures of them with women (or maybe in the Alfie case, men) which they will publish unless the person in question comes in to give an interview, etc. Tiger Woods was naive enough to go for the interview and boast of his ‘brilliant’ family life. Now, I hate golf with a passion, but I am pretty sure it suffers as a sport without its best player.

While Tiger-like allegations have not been revealed in his case, it is known that after narrow defeat to the Aussies in September 2006, Alfie broke down and revealed all to (then) Welsh coach Scott Johnson, who informed the two most senior players in the Welsh side - Martyn Williams and Stephen Jones. Alfie recalls the moment before he talked to them about his sexuality for the first time: “As I sat in the bar waiting for them, I was terrified, wondering what they were going to say. But they came in, patted me on the back and said: ‘We don’t care. Why didn’t you tell us before?’” (The Sunday Times December 20).

But the reaction of most players was the nightmare from which Alfie could never escape in the pursuit of his dream to reach the top - a dream which he knew he could only achieve at the expense of his family, friends, fellow players … and himself as a gay man. Although many young Welsh boys would kill to be a grand slam-winning Welsh captain, it is impossible to comprehend the mental torture that he must have been through in all of this. He even turned to the church and asked god to rid him of what he saw as his burden of ‘shame’.

That he put up with this intolerable situation for so long shows just how the human spirit can adapt and to what lengths we can go to in order to comply with the world’s prejudices. For Thomas, this even meant adopting a relationship with a woman who he has said - and this can be believed - he “would die for”. It is shocking to think just how many men are currently living (‘living’ seems the wrong word) such lives in order to be ‘normal’. In a country where rugby probably has more of a following now than Christianity, let us hope that he serves as an inspiration to many other men enduring such existential anguish.

Whether one is the village priest, local barman or captain of the Welsh rugby team, every fetter on the flowering of one’s individuality and personality must be fought tooth and nail. As we saw in the tragic case of the gifted footballer, Justin Fashanu, who took his life after coming out, in such an infinitely

complex matter as concealing and denying one’s own sexuality these are genuinely matters of life and death. Although my heart also goes out to Alfie’s wife, with whom he has obviously shared a loving relationship, I do not in any way blame him. He knew full well that he could either be gay or a professional rugby player. For someone with his ability, this was no easy choice to make. It is one that nobody should have to make again.

A good a player as he is, however, Alfie is not going to rid sport, let alone society, of homophobic attitudes and prejudices. LGBT oppression can only be overcome through mass class organisation and a political programme that does not treat such questions as of lesser importance than workplace struggles over jobs and wages, but as key democratic questions for society as a whole. Given much of the left’s economism in posing generalised trade union-type action as a strategy for working class power, it is hardly surprising that we have such a shoddy record in this field. And those who scorn the notion of a communist political platform for sport should take another look at the best of our history and events like the Workers’ Olympics.

In spite of some rather vomit-inducing reporting in The Times (cue Thomas in the pink Cardiff Blues’ away strip under the headline, ‘pink power’, and a huge picture of him getting ‘double-tackled’ by the Kiwi back row) the establishment response, and indeed that of the rugby world more generally, has been positive. Fans have rallied to his defence and hopefully this will mark a sea change in rugby culture. Let us now hope that he can finish off his highly successful career and start to live his life away from media hounding and the paparazzi preying on him on the streets of Cardiff.

What Alfie has done is to open up an argument that Marxists - whatever our opinion of what, in this author’s eyes, is the best sport on the planet - would be stupid to ignore or to play down. You can rest assured that the topic was hotly debated in Welsh pubs, rugby clubs and over family dinner tables during the festive season. Just as in the Cardiff Arms Park stands 10 years ago, old prejudices and outright reactionary sentiment will surface, but this can only be overcome through democracy, discussion and exposure (like all prejudices, in fact). With the spread of girls’ mini-rugby and the mixed-sex ‘tag’ form in schools, concerted LGBT campaigning in rugby - and sport as a whole - could bear fruit.

In 2010 we might just see a sporting world where homosexuality is at least less of a taboo, and for this we must thank Alfie.

That is one thing Welsh rugby fans can look forward to perhaps. With or without Alfie, my Cardiff Blues are still in the doldrums after being trounced by Toulouse last week. We are a watery image of last year’s successful team. With the prospect of the Blues not making the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup (a Champions League with an oval ball), Wales looking flaky ahead of the Six Nations and an ‘Ingerland’ football summer ahead, this writer’s sporting year does not look great, though. C’mon, Ivory Coast!